Doctors thought Eli Gold wouldn’t make it through the night. Now, he’s making his return to Alabama football

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Eli Gold is feeling pretty good these days.

On this particular day, the longtime “Voice of the Crimson Tide” is at Therapy South in Vestavia, where he has been going three times a week for the last few months. Wearing a Crimson Tide T-shirt that hangs off his once-stout frame, Gold has been working on building strength in his legs, on getting his balance better. Every once in a while, he uses a red cane to steady himself, but for the most part, he has no issues walking without any help.

During the hour-long workout, the 69-year-old Gold and his trainer, Ryan Kailey, do everything from standing up to repeatedly stepping up and down on a single wood block. The exhaustion on Gold’s face can be seen through his clenched teeth, but he keeps going.

“They don’t cut me any slack, that’s for damn sure,” Gold jokes.

Eli Gold doing workouts with his trainer, Ryan Kailey, at Therapy South in Vestavia. (Courtesy Ron Gaines)

After a while, Gold takes a break, getting a cup of water from his wife, Claudette. Given all he’s been through, this isn’t all that bad.

“It’s good, which is something I never thought I would hear myself say,” Gold said.

Over a year ago, life was very different Gold. One day last spring, he couldn’t get out of bed, he couldn’t move his legs. For months, he was in and out of hospitals. Unable to figure out what was wrong, Gold stepped away for the 2022 season to focus on his health, leaving Chris Stewart to take his place. Before that, the only game he had missed since 1988. Over the last 35 years, Gold has called a quarter of all the football games the Crimson Tide has ever played.

Nights in the hospital were often rough for the lifelong broadcaster. At his peak, he would be on the road over 200 days a year, calling football, basketball and hockey games, in addition to NASCAR races. With a season away from the microphone, Gold felt lost.

“You’re lying there in the bed and you know the team is leaving to go to a location or ‘I should be on the plane.’ All that bothered me,” he said. “I was living my life in my brain without going to these places.”

Eli Gold, right, with former Alabama color analyst Ken Stabler during an Alabama game. (Courtesy Paul W. Bryant Museum)

For a time, Gold didn’t want to see anyone.

“I didn’t want people to see all the wires and hoses coming in and out of me,” he said. “The whole thing was tough.”

Gold’s health continued to decline. Having always been a large man, he found himself unable to eat much. Over the course of a few months, Gold lost over 140 pounds, dropping to 182 pounds at his sickest. During this time, doctors told his family on a couple of occasions that he likely wouldn’t make it through the night.

“They were so concerned that they had a feeding tube put in me,” he said.

Then, just before Christmas, what seemingly started off as an intense series of hiccups became something much worse: stage 3 esophageal cancer.

“The problem was the medicine was hiding the cancer,” he said. “It was seven to eight months before they knew what I had.”

Within a week, Gold started chemotherapy. By the spring, he had finished his last round of treatment and today, he is in remission.

“It lets you realize how if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” he said. “You also realize how vitally important your family and friends are. In my case, I realized how lucky I’ve been.”

Eli Gold doing workouts with his trainer, Ryan Kailey, at Therapy South in Vestavia. Gold is set to return to the microphone to call Alabama football games for the first time in over a season. (Courtesy Ron Gaines)

Despite his health issues, Gold’s priority was always to eventually come back to work. He had hoped to come back for the last Iron Bowl, but health setbacks prevented it. Then, he wanted to come back for A-Day, but it came and went without him. Now, he knows he’s strong enough to do a broadcast.

“I would never do anything to embarrass or hurt the university,” he said. “If I felt like I couldn’t do it or wasn’t ready, I would go to them and say ‘I can’t do this.’”

As much as Gold has been working on getting around, he has spent just as much time honing his voice, the instrument he has used throughout his 50-year career in broadcasting. A year ago, there were days when he would not say a word in his hospital room. Now, he tries to talk as much as he can, even singing in the car and shower to exercise his voice, his repertoire ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to “stupid stuff” to build up his stamina.

“I give you my word: it’s not pretty,” Gold jokes. “I’m never going to get an application from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

Gold said he has been keeping up with the team and trying to get back into practice. Next month, he and the Crimson Tide Sports Network team will cover two scrimmage games for rehearsal.

“Have I forgotten to call a game? Not likely,” he said. “The first half of that scrimmage, I’m sure it’s going to be rusty, but that’s why it will be done for my own purpose and to see how I need to improve.”

Nonetheless, Gold has already been taking small steps in his way back to the booth. A couple of weeks ago, he recorded 90 promotional announcements for dozens of radio station ahead of the upcoming football season. He’s also signed on to call Birmingham Bulls hockey games this winter.

Entering a new chapter in both his life and career, Gold is coming into the new season with a renewed purpose to honor those who have been affected by cancer.

“My calling is now bigger than just bringing the Bama fan the game,” he said. “My calling also includes all those who are dealing with this dreadful disease.”

Eli Gold doing workouts with his trainer, Ryan Kailey, at Therapy South in Vestavia. Gold has called hundreds of Crimson Tide football games through his 35-year-career with the University of Alabama. (Courtesy Ron Gaines)

Many of Gold’s longtime colleagues are rooting for his return, including Paul Finebaum, an ESPN analyst and host of “The Paul Finebaum Show” on the SEC Network.

“It’s great news for him, but it’s even better news for us as fans,” Finebaum said.

Finebaum said that in many ways, he owes his career in broadcasting to Gold. Starting in 1984, Gold would often have Finebaum, then a sportswriter at the Birmingham Post-Herald, guest host his radio show, “Calling All Sports,” on WERC whenever he was out of town for work.

“That was my first experience on radio,” Finebaum said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but he encouraged management to hire me.”

Finebaum said that if Gold can stay healthy, he could see him carrying on with the Alabama broadcasts for a long time.

“What he does on a radio broadcast what is similar to what Picasso does on a canvas,” he said. “They are both masters.”

Another friend, longtime CBS Sports broadcaster Verne Lundquist, said he can’t wait to see Gold come back.

“Having to sit out last year to take care of himself and go through treatment, I know he is thrilled to return,” Lundquist said.

Phil Savage, Eli Gold and Chris Stewart before the Alabama/Fresno State game in 2017. (Photo by Amelia B. Barton)

Lundquist, who served as play-by-play announcer for “SEC on CBS” between 2000 and 2016, said that like Georgia’s Larry Munson or John Forney, Gold’s predecessor at Alabama, he respects how the “Voice of the Tide” has made his decades-long career through his association with Alabama.

“As he tells you, he’s a kid from Brooklyn who found a home in the South,” Lundquist said. “I think Eli has earned the affection of so many Alabama fans and I know he’s earned the respect and affection of some Auburn people, too.”

Wimp Sanderson, who coached the Alabama men’s basketball team from 1980 to 1992, said he was “tickled to death” about Gold’s return to the microphone.

“I’m glad his health has afforded him the opportunity to come back,” Sanderson said.

Claudette, Gold’s wife of 46 years, said the whole journey has been emotional for the family, but seeing him get back to what he loves most will be a joy.

“After all we’ve been through, just to see him in a good place and happy with what he wants to do, I’m going to need a box of Kleenex that day, I’m afraid,” she said.

Gold said that as long as the Tide community will have him, he’ll call as many games as he can.

“It’s part of me,” he said. “It’s who I am and I will never overlook that.”

Alabama’s first game of the season will be in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 2 against Middle Tennessee State University.

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